Posted: Nov 09, 2003 12:00 AM

"Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."--George Orwell, 1984

No, it's not quite the bleak vision of George Orwell. But it's close enough.

In 1949, Orwell published a novel set in the far-flung future of three and a half decades later. It tells of a semi-recognizable Britain, now scooped up in the mega-state of Oceania, whose citizens are controlled via telescreens in every room. These screens transmit the all-seeing gaze of Big Brother and Big Bro's myriad clerical proxies. Under this Oceanic surveillance, even one's innermost thoughts are not secure.

Orwell envisioned an apparatus of control so "scientific" and total that it couldn't help but produce the totally submissive citizen--the man who, though he might resist for a while, in the end always "loves Big Brother."

In 2003 what the British citizen must fear is not the telescreen in every room, but the bureaucrat in every room checking whether you have a telescreen. If you do but aren't paying your "TV license fee," woe unto you! You won't be punished for thoughtcrime, but you will be punished for viewcrime. And if you choose not to own a TV at all...woe unto you again!

I only recently learned of Great Britain's TV tyranny, thanks to a report about an erroneously invoiced German cat (about which more later). Britain's mandatory license-fee regime, which is hardly new, seems to be so ingrained that most of the queen's subjects just grumble and pay. This is how frogs get boiled, of course--slowly and by routine--so that even the frogs just shrug their shoulders about it. "What do you mean, we're being boiled alive? Of course we're being boiled alive. It's always been this way."

In various forms the TV license fee has been around since the 1920s, when it applied to radio. The scheme was later used to fund the British television monopoly, so that the government could claim that fees, not taxes, were the funding source. This is a bit of doublethink, obviously; the BBC is a government construct, not the product of voluntary interactions between TV service buyer and TV service seller.

It used to be the post office that collected this license fee. But since 1991, the task has devolved to the BBC itself, specifically its dummy corporation the Television Licensing Authority. Meanwhile, TV dealers are required by law to collect the names and addresses of people who buy televisions. This info then goes into a giant database.

Let me be perfectly clear. This is mandatory. This is about watching television. In Great Britain, TV watchers must pay £116 per annum in order television (if it's a color TV; watching black-and-white is cheaper). Eight TV channels, 12 radio stations. The BBC. This is real. This is true.

Persons who refuse to pay the fee while yet owning a TV are treated like criminals. Persons who claim not to own a TV are treated like criminal suspects. A new breed of human called TV inspectors force their way into homes to check the status of professedly telly-free British citizens.

John Hammond does not own a television. The 69-year-old spends his spare time listening to gramophone records--and flipping through accusatory letters from the Television Licensing Authority. "I rang them and they were extremely sarcastic and said I should buy a licence whether I have a TV or not to stop them bothering me." He says that eight years ago, TV inspectors broke into his home. He frets that they might do it again.

Journalist Jonathan Miller stopped paying the license fee. TV inspectors came to his home (apparently there is an endless supply of these inspectors). Miller told them he was willing to go to court about it. "[T]he licence fee makes no sense," he says. "If everyone loves the BBC so much, why is the public forced to pay for it? It's an extortion racket." He lost his case in one court but is appealing.

Erika Sigvallius is a teacher. She owns no television. There is so much else to do! The TV inspectors want to search her home. Of course, some people who claim to have no TV are lying. So "of course" one must search the homes of all people who make such claims. Ms. Sigvallius is of the opinion that her home is her castle. The TV Licensing Authority disagrees, saying that "our policy to visit addresses that claim to have no television is in the interests of the honest majority of people who pay for a licence."

Why, it's doubleplusungood not to let busybodies invade your private sanctuary at will.

What's my "analysis" of all this? Only that nobody should be trying to impose a funhouse mirror version of Orwell's dark vision. Also that British socialists should reconsider their creed.

Greedy rapacious capitalists will never send men tapping at your window in response to your unwillingness to pay for a service you never signed up for. What we have in America with our greedy rapacious capitalism is a few ad-funded networks that nobody gets fined for watching, plus an array of additional viewing opportunities for consumers who want to pay for them. This latter is called cable television.

What happens with cable is a process called "charging." This is preceded by another process called "choosing." Only the people who choose to purchase the cable service are then charged for it. Of course, in America cable companies tend to get protected from local competition, which is not right. And there are other absurd interventions in broadcasting. But such regulations are still light years away from treating everybody who fails to subscribe to your service like a criminal suspect and demanding to rummage through his home.

I was going to say something now about that German cat, but I'm out of time. I promise, though, to tell you about it real soon, in my Common Sense e-letter, which is distributed free to all intelligent, well-informed people.

Meantime, the British should take a cue from the Americans they once tried to conquer. We had a Boston Tea Party, and the British should have a London TV Party--just dump all the TVs over the pier in one glorious flamboyant public display of ain't-gonna-take-it-any-more. Give up those tellies. Make it a national movement. Regain some of that dignity and freedom you've lost. Don't love Big Brother.

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